Tuesday, October 9, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Firsts of the Season

NHL  logo1. The first first tragedy or event outside (or inside) the game that puts things in perspective.

A sad irony that after NHL teams took part in the campaign to raise awareness about cancer on the weekend, Jason Blake announces that he is stricken with a rare form of leukemia on Monday.

People often trot out the usual cliches when they don't know what to say or how to articulate their most vulnerable feelings. I say "vulnerable" because, let's face it, as much sorrow and empathy as we feel for someone who has suffered in some way, it really hits at our innermost fears about what will one day befall us and our loved ones.

"It makes you realize what is important in life," is the one line that comes to mind in such a situation. No doubt family and friends eclipse all else but I'll put the passion that drives an athlete to the heights and makes him successful enough to turn pro as something that is also right up there.

To reach the end of one's life and know that passions were neglected and dreams never realized can cast a cloud of bitter regret over everything, including the relationships with friends and family that should matter so much. Passions are very important and can enrich our interactions with those we are closest to. For some people, such as pro hockey players, those intense commitments to achieve can help them to ensure the comfort and safety of the people who matter most in their lives.  Let's not forget that those distractions and challenges we create and absorb ourselves in help to establish the character and personalities of the human beings who we care for to such a heightened degree when tragedy strikes.

I admire Blake for the toughness he is showing but I'm afraid that when you start to look at the details of his condition, you realize just how serious it is. Here's hoping he beats it and somehow has a great, full season with the Leafs.

2. The first brewing controversy of the season.

No, it's not head shots, though that will rear its bashed melon as an issue again at some point.

It's the new RBK Edge jerseys that were touted as the greatest innovation in pro sports equipment since the ventilated nut cup.

They spent so much time and so many millions on research to develop fabric that would dispel moisture that they never considered where the rivers of sweat would flow. Take a look at this question and answer document (note: it's a pdf file) released by Reebok and the NHL regarding the new uniforms. There's a lot in there about wind tunnels and technologically advanced material:

"Q: How valid and thorough was the research behind this new project?

A: Unprecedented testing was executed by the Reebok research & development teams as well as experts at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (wind tunnel analysis) and Central Michigan University (thermal regulation analysis). More than two years of extensive research, development and testing were performed on the new Rbk EDGE Uniform System with player performance and safety at the forefront of the project. Testing started in labs and progressed through various wear-test groups and most importantly Reebok worked directly with the NHL and NHLPA to ensure players’ feedback was incorporated. "

But not much regarding in-the-field-rink testing. OK, there is some information about player feedback but look at the details and time-line:

"Q: Did the NHL and Reebok seek input from NHL players, the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) and General Managers? If so, what kind of feedback was received?

A: Players’ input was a key component of the development of this new uniform system from the very early stages. In 2003, Reebok and the NHL had initial discussions to bring Reebok’s expertise in uniform design to the NHL with an overall goal of creating a new uniform that would increase player performance and protection. Over the course of the next year, new uniform concepts were presented to NHL General Managers and the NHLPA. Prototypes were developed and refined by Reebok and by the summer of 2006 the project was approved by the NHLPA and Board of Governors. On-ice testing sessions with NHL and minor-league players continued during team practices through the 2006-07 season and constant modifications were made based on player feedback. Many NHL players have been supportive of Reebok’s modifications to the NHL uniform system and have responded positively to the safety and performance improvements that the new Rbk EDGE Uniform System provides. "

The research and development started in 2003 but the input from players who had actually tried the jerseys in a realistic situation (and even then only in practices) wasn't until 2006-07. It seems like it was almost an afterthought at that point and appears only limited in scope. Why weren't they tested in game situations? How many players took part?

It's not hard to imagine that those few players had a bias and were more likely to highlight the positives and provide favourable ratings. And the people involved in the project were no doubt blinded by the validation all around them and the millions that were flowing like the unfettered gallons of sweat that are currently soaking every scrap of equipment and apparel worn by players. Except of course for those pristine, pathetic jerseys, which by all accounts are remaining as dry as sawdust.

Funny how the little unexpected things end up doing in so many people and big ideas. It was tax evasion with Al Capone and with the new jerseys it's sweat.

3. First unbeaten streak.

There are a few unbeaten teams though Ottawa's streak is the longest at four.

Surprising Washington are unbeaten after three.

Others with two wins and no losses are the Tampa Bay Lighting and the Minnesota Wild.

I'll take Ottawa as the team that keeps their streak alive the longest.

4. The first points leader.

There has been some movement within the first week of the season but Daniel Alfredsson is currently on top with five goals and eight points.

That will likely earn Alfredsson the first NHL player of the week designation as well.

5. First slew of injuries.

There are plenty of banged up players though one of the most recent injuries was suffered by Sean Avery in this nasty but clean hit from Chris Neil during the game between the Senators and the New York Rangers on October 6th.

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